The Taste Gap & Feedback

Or, how can you tell how good your work is… or isn’t? All artists, no matter what the medium, tend to be pretty aware of the phenomenon of looking at their work and going “This is awesome! Just as good as the bestsellers, if not better by leaps and bounds!” Also, they’re aware of looking at their work and going “This is the worst thing ever! I need to hide this in a nuclear waste dump, lest it contaminate the very electrons desecrated with its presence!” In fact, most of us can cycle through both of these viewpoints multiple times on the exact same piece of work.

This is normal. I can’t tell you how to stop doing that, but I can offer some insights on how to mitigate it, and how to get better anyway.

First, on the “this is the worst piece ever!”, this phenomenon is called “the taste gap”, a term coined by Ira Glass when he spoke on it in 2009, in an interview.

“Nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish somebody had told this to me — is that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, OK? It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste — the thing that got you into the game — your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you, you know what I mean?

A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. And the thing I would just like say to you with all my heart is that most everybody I know who does interesting creative work, they went through a phase of years where they had really good taste and they could tell what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be — they knew it fell short, it didn’t have the special thing that we wanted it to have.

And the thing I would say to you is everybody goes through that. And for you to go through it, if you’re going through it right now, if you’re just getting out of that phase — you gotta know it’s totally normal.

And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work — do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week, or every month, you know you’re going to finish one story. Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you are actually going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while — it’s normal to take a while. And you just have to fight your way through that, okay?”

The short-term solution is to find some trusted beta readers, and toss it in their laps like a grenade with the pin pulled, even as you’re cringing and waiting for the critique. Usually, what comes back is totally different from what you expect – because they’re not holding your work to the standard you are; they hold it to the standard of “does this entertain me?”

Long term? Write and publish more / paint and exhibit more / create and perform more, striving with each one to learn, to grow, to explore techniques. In music, they have a concept called “directed practice“, which is practice devoted to accuracy with the goal of systematically reducing errors. As a very long-suffering sergeant in the South African Defense Force told my husband when he was a fresh troep, complaining about endless practice on the range, “Son, an amateur practices until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can’t get it wrong.”

It’s harder with creative writing than with shooting, throwing grenades to a safe distance, or playing scales – because we can’t force the muse to write the same thing over and over, focusing on getting it right, and expect immediate feedback. But, we can set up how we write to try to hit these variables anyway, within the constraints of making stories.  One variation is to take workshops with writers whom they respect for their storytelling and success, that requires the participants to write several pieces for the class. One week may be on foreshadowing, another on characterization – and by getting feedback, and giving it, and seeing how their piece and other’s pieces change (and usually improve) with the feedback.

Sometimes authors do this with their beta readers, or critique group. They’ll hand out a short story, a couple chapters, or an entire book, and based on the feedback, they’ll then focus on trying again on specific things highlighted. (In fact, several authors do this again after publication from their reviews. Whether they read them or have a trusted friend do so, they can then take the feedback and determine they’ll improve in the next story.)

And just as people can learn to play guitar or do yoga or hundred of other things from youtube videos – even if you don’t have other people giving feedback on your specific piece, you can always put it in a drawer for a few weeks or months until you can see the words on the page you actually wrote instead of the story in your head you meant to write. While doing so, write another piece, and then another. The practice writing, as well as the feedback when you start looking over older pieces, will help focus you on improving.

Whatever you do, whether you have feedback available or not, create more art. The act of writing more will help you to exercise the skills that are a writer’s toolbox, and by practicing, improve. Strive to tell the best story you can. Read voraciously; it’ll help you pick up new ways to do things, and remind you why you got into this business in the first place. But above all, as Neil Gaiman says,

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.

On the other end of the scale, the “this is the awesomest thing ever!”, this is a great feeling, that will help motivate you through the hard grind of doing the actual work. On the other hand, once the story is finished and before you publish it, I beseech you to consider that you might be wrong. Send it out to a beta reader who reads in your genre, or ten. If one comes back with a bit they dislike, it might just be them. But if three come back and they’re all saying the same thing, then you want to take a good hard look at what they’re saying, and why that might be.

There are some books out there that are absolutely terrible, even worse than Eye of Argon, yet the authors are convinced that their book is the best one since the Epic of Gilgamesh. There are lots more books that are pretty good, other than the glaring plothole here, the way the hero’s car changed colour and style three times and reappeared in his driveway no matter where he left it in the prior chapter, or the completely wrong science / medical terms and healing time / horse behavior, which threw readers out of the story as their suspension of disbelief exploded.

Feedback is your friend! Especially if you get it in time to fix the book prior to publication.

My own variation on this is that I can’t tell, when I finish a story, what problems it has. I know that it must have problems, but I can’t see them. And it makes me paranoid, because I don’t want to put out something that is terrible. This used to really discourage me, because I couldn’t tell if I was getting worse, or better, or stagnating… Now? I sit on the book for a bit to give myself some distance, and then send it out to beta readers. The time they take getting back is a feature, not a bug, because it helps me get past the story in my head to the story on the page, and see the problems they mention.

And I ask my husband. Since Peter has written and published a lot more books than me, while not necessarily a fan of my subgenre, he likes it well enough to go “Yes, this is up to market standards” or not. If you don’t have a similarly awesome spouse, your beta readers can really help, or a friend who’s also an author.

Questions? Comments? Rotten fruit?


    1. I thought about using “Atlanta Nights” instead, but then figured somebody either wouldn’t get the reference, or would, and would think that I hadn’t understood that it was deliberate parody. As for other, much worse books out there: there definitely are. Eye of Argon has the twin virtues of not having the author come back here after google-searching their name to shriek incoherent rage about how we don’t understand xir’s masterpiece, and being identifiable to most of the readers here so they don’t feel the need to go search out a book and come back to proclaim about its wonders and horrors.

      1. Some truly insane souls who actually read Nights say it has a certain degree of internal stylistic consistency. How, I don’t know — that is, have consistency OR read the whole thing, both.

        1. On the “apparent internal stylistic consistency”, the authors may have intended it to be “crazy” and that’s the “internal stylistic consistency” the lunatics spotted.

          Of course, from what I heard, it’d take being a lunatic to read it completely. 😈

          1. One might think so, but on a discussion shortly after the hoax, a guy was talking about how he started to read it, but by Chapter 6, he had put it aside and taken up a novel he thought was done, and started to revise. Future generations would never know what they missed.

            I said that was a good thing even though he had not reached Chapter 10.

            He said he had gotten there now, and now enormous chunks of description were falling from his manuscript.

            I realized that yes, he was reading it.

            (And in fact, I have heard many claims that reading it improved writing skills by serving as a hideous example. Go figure.)

        1. However, even if so, supposedly he at least had a sense of humor about it all and aided and abetted some of the critiques of the work. Great Writer? Perhaps not. Decent guy? Yeah, that I can give him.

          1. It’s a pity, in one way. There’s many a writer who has a piece at least as bad in the juvenilia, but I can see how being “The author of Eye of Argon” could discourage you..

          2. The grammar was what I’d expect of a high school student and for the most part correct. The prose? Exceedingly purple, but readable, he had a very basic but follow-able plot, and really was a First Effort At Writing. He also finished it, which is more than a lot of people manage to do.

            Was it bad? Yeah. I wouldn’t call it Fantastic or Absorbing Literature. But it’s not as horrible as it was made out to be. There’s someone out there whose writing I’ve consistently heard described as “I could eat alphabet soup and shit out a better story, and it’d make more sense.” We know who that is.

    2. I’ve never read Eye of Argon, but I’ve read far too many Real Published Books on dead trees, written by Famous Authors, printed by Real Major Publishers, that had no plot.

      “Stuff happens, some other stuff happens, The End” is *not* a plot by my standards.

      1. From what little I remember, Argon had a Conan-esque hero, a maiden to rescue and a Big Bad to defeat and the McGuffin. Very basic plot, the barest bones of one, but still a plot.

        Still better than waffling on about fish semen, or paragraph long nothing happens but detailed descriptions of vague scenery (and no that’s not an oxymoron. Sections of scenery were detailed without you getting a picture) and pretty much goes downhill from there.

  1. The ideal beta reader (I state that I aspire to, but am far from reaching) is one who can separate taste from mechanics. “Do I like this” and “Does this narrative work” are two different questions, and it is hard for me to objectively critique anything that I either really like or really dislike.

    The best editors and reviewers are able to say, “This is great writing, but the story needs work” or “I dislike this story, but it’s well written.” If you find readers who have that level of objectivity, be very good to them.

      1. To use an example from here, Star Dogs was that for me. The guild was just too awful – but it was very good writing showing just how awful they were.

    1. Actually the best editors say, this is great, but in chapter four you refer to something from a previous book that will be completely opaque to new readers. In chapter six you introduce five characters in details and they never show up again. Where X and Y characters are concerned, you are following a typical romance arc. And fail to finish it. Oh, and . . .”

      You grit your teeth and thank them, and stomp away mentally questioning their intelligence, their parentage, and indeed their actual species. Three weeks later you pull your brilliant opus out and start reading it from the start and realize they were spot on.

      1. This is why it’s better done in writing. And It’s wise to take notes rather than analyze it while reading.

  2. I’ve been doing directed practice for a major choral work since August. We, the chorus, will continue doing it until May of 2020. I don’t like it. I detest that style of practicing. But this piece is that demanding, and so the chorus slogs away.

    Every six months or so I go back and look at _A Cat Among Dragons_. I pick one story and think about what worked, what fell short, and what I would do differently now, This does two things. One, it is a reminder that I have gotten better even when it doesn’t seem like it. Two, it gives me warning reminders of bad habits I tend to lapse into (repeating a word too often, skimping on setting and technical detail in sequels, that sort of thing.)

    1. I’m a little skeptical about this “directed practice”. For starters, I’m skeptical about “Scientists say….”, especially when it’s not in the hard sciences and given all the recent retractions.

      Some of it makes sense, duh!, but isn’t particularly helpful. Of course, if you have some sitting by your side, creating graded exercises and giving instant feedback you’re going to get better. But that’s possible for most of us – instead, you’re stuck with a piano, an hour to practice, and no outside feedback. Or to give a basketball example, yes, I do think continual practice was a major part of why, say, Steph Curry is so great, but I don’t think he had someone analyzing his every shot (maybe he has that now, but not when he was becoming great).

      And talent still does matter. Some people just don’t get the groove – listen to Yuja Wang play Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3 (wow!) then her playing Liber Tango (bland….)

      1. Part of what we are practicing is to keep us from hurting ourselves physically. Believe me, with a demanding piece, if you are not careful, you can damage your voice even during rehearsal. That’s part of why the directed practice, so that the conductor and other more experienced musicians can hear us, hear what we are doing, and say, “Good, that’s correct,” and “No, here’s what you need to do in that passage to keep from screaming by accident.”

        (Ah, Beethoven. There is no choir large enough to do Beethoven, given his orchestrations. In my opinion as a singer.)

  3. “This is the awesomest thing ever!!!”

    I have that sometimes. Usually because I finally figured out the answer to The Problem of the book, and the characters are revving up to go kill the shit out of something.

    My crazy characters are -way- overpowered, like anime character overpowered. So they face big problems that I don’t know how to solve. Most of the book is fighting to get enough time to figure out the answer. But when they do figure it out, man that’s sweet.

    Will anybody else think that? Dunno. But I did, so maybe that’s a good sign? Hope so, because that’s why I wrote it. So some kid somewhere will read it and go “This is AWESOME!!!”

    Its funny, because even though I wrote it, the feeling of pride of accomplishment doesn’t arise. It feels more like a team effort, me and my characters fought through and did it. I’m proud of them. When I build a shed or a table, then I have pride for me.

    1. Oh yeah. Unfortunately when it happens, my back brain goes “Ahhh! So that’s how they win! Good story, what shall we do next?”

      “Write it down in detail, and have a HEA.”

      “Boring. Let’s start a new story.”

      So then I have to fight my own brain. All the way to the finish. Lazy brain.

    2. Figuring out solutions is hard. My working theory, mostly because I simply *hope* that it’s true, is that what seems obvious to me seems so because I’m inside the story and maybe it won’t seem quite as obvious to someone reading the book.

      I donno, maybe almost as a variation of word association quizzes… If my gut reaction to “stone” is “bread”, but someone else sees “stone” and thinks “facade”, they might think that “bread” is clever and different…. maybe.

  4. The thing I still have to remember is that the book on paper is never as good as the book in my head.

  5. I’ve done everything from beta reads to full up copy edits for a number of authors. I offer two sorts of inputs, both points of fact and my opinions. Facts are things like continuity breaks, errors in technology, and mistakes in spelling and grammar. My opinions if I am asked are purely subjective and offered as such, simply my feeling on the work in question.
    Since it’s gotten out that I am willing to do this I will get requests from new to me writers to review their latest work. I always try to be brutally honest as I see no point in being anything less than that. I’ve never taken a look at any story that I did not find a few errors, some minor and some not so much. I would note that I often come across similar errors in traditionally published books. So I always hand their precious back to them with comments and corrections. And I can always tell the serious author from the dilettante. The serious folk will continue to send me more of their work, the hobbyists I never hear from again.

  6. Although it might not be as perfect, sometimes first books have a charm that later books last. For example, even though I can remember its flaws, the first Harry Potter book had a certain charm that later books lacked.

    Sometimes writers follow a parabolic art, with books in the middle being the best. Using Harry Potter again, I gave up when reading the series become about 50% extra padding (my theory is that Rowling got see big that the publisher was afraid to edit her work properly)

  7. Practice doesn’t make us perfect, but it DOES make us better as long as we listen to our Alpha and Beta readers, and our readers in the wild…

  8. It’s always odd to me when I see people not improve while working hard at their craft. Until I see their support structures. Supportive. Cuddling. Protecting the new writers from the big bad truth.

    I’m a blue collar guy in an industrial setting where if people screw up they, and others, could get hurt or die. When you get new guys in you obviously have to train them and since your life and theirs lie in the balance you have no option but to tell them the truth. You try not to yell at them, but you identify the problem and you communicate that problem to them very clearly. If they choose not to listen you have two choices, get them fired (which is really low down on the list of desirable outcomes) or get blunt. Whether that’s yelling, or a demonstration, it is absolutely imperative they learn the lesson quickly or leave quickly so as to not hurt anyone or themselves.

    There’s a balance, you can give out feedback so over the top that new people won’t listen but generally I’ve found people respect bluntness and do improve quickly.

    But in some writing groups (the one I’m in now has a good group of people who accept and look for tough critiques for the most part) I’ve seen it become verboten to be blunt. To have harsh criticism. To identify flaws and tell them quick and easy ways to write past or through those flaws. They’re so concerned with not offending that they refuse to be helpful.

    Maybe that’s what some of those new writers want though; not feedback, not an occasionally needed kick in the teeth or the butt, but an audience. They just want to be listened to and tell people they’re a writer.

    That’s fine for those people.

    The new writers I’m concerned about though are the ones who join that kind of support structure and want to improve but because they are ‘supported’ they never really do. Their prose usually gets smoother, the writing on the surface appears to get better, but generally the flaws in the story/plot/characterization never really gets any better. They’re surrounded by friends. Their writing is noticeably, but superficially, getting better. They spend years with the vague notion that something isn’t quite right. Their own taste in writing and writers tells the new writers they lack something but no one is willing to tell them what that is or how to fix it. But the new writers have ‘support’.

    A trap laid by kindness.


    1. Sometimes it’s not so much kindness as desire to grow the group. There are a LOT more wannabe writers than there are fledgling writers truly willing to work at their craft. After a group gets to a certain size somebody notices this and the tone of the group changes to supportive, cuddling, unchallenging.

      1. Working on an extremely small sample size, here, and there may be survivorship bias… but the really successful writing groups I’ve heard mentioned by authors – the ones that put out at least one bestseller and multiple comfortable midlist authors – tend to be “split a pizza” small. From the Inklings to the Minnesota Scribblies, to Brandon Sanderson’s group, they never seem to get more than 5-7 members.

        The larger groups that seems to have many more authors and have been around a while have a set culture, an unchanging set of rules, and experienced authors & beginners moving in and out of the area… but they seem to be more focused on “the group” than on writing success.

        Of course, “success” is a highly variable word, meaning different things to different people from vague fuzzy dreams of being rich as Croesus. to putting their grandmother’s memoirs in print, to making a solid middle class living from fiction, to finally telling “their story”, to securing their tenure through a shower of publications.

        Tiny Town Texas has a writer’s group, and several members of the North Texas Writers, Shooters, and Pilots Association faithfully show up. We have hopes of finding more people than just our whimsically named group who want to be making a living at this, and more feedback that can escape our groupthink… And then we run head first into the reality of a very nice children’s book author who looks quite disapproving at any cussing as strong as “darn.” Why no, no, I don’t think she wants to provide feedback on zombie apocalypse and urban fantasy stories where the headshots are hilarious. And the lovely, lovely lady who is publishing Christian inspirational will not likely be pleased to read mil scifi, much less contemporary romance. It’s a great reminder that if your aspiration is to write “a” book telling “your” story, then a small-press publisher who’ll do all the formatting and cover art and everything else may be a great choice. And those of us talking about the also-bought apocalypse and auto-throttling on Facebook posts and morality clauses in trad contracts are… not on the same page.

        So we still form smaller feedback groups within the larger group, and while trying to be polite and considerate to everyone there, we really don’t have useful feedback, for the most part, on the children’s books or Christian inspirational, and they don’t for us. And as for the illustrator – I’m afraid that “Oooh. This is awesome!” isn’t exactly useful feedback. Even though it is really nifty! So without intent to coddle, we’re still not that useful for each other.

    2. I will say this though… if the harsh or blunt critiques are from people who don’t have a clue what the actual problem in the story might be, it’s not going to help. There really aren’t that many people who are capable of identifying what is actually wrong in a story and even fewer that can help you fix *your* story instead of the story that they’d have written in your stead.

      I do think that it’s important to be supportive and encouraging, and someone who really does know how to identify structural issues can be both.

      Everyone else can still be supportive and encouraging and maybe help to fix small things.

      Which just means, keep this in mind and do your own work.

  9. But sometimes, in taking something you’ve written and trying to refine it, its like a person who takes a knife and grinds off too much trying to sharpen it…

  10. I get to a point where I *know* it needs further refinement but 1) can’t put my finger on the precise fixit and 2) am fairly sure I will refine the good stuff out of existence if I keep spinning my wheels. I’m working on pushing that point further and further along my personal editing process, but it pushes back. 🙂

    1. That’s the point at which it goes on the backburner for me. Or to the writers’ group.

      Though you do have to remember to take it off.

      It took me years to finish A Diabolical Bargain because I was mastering the form of a novel. (And in the days when 50,000 words was unpublishably short.)

      1. Yeah. Second book for me, and the need for back-burner shows. I am still learning how to pace myself; my goal’s two publishable novels per year, and someday I will get there. Meanwhile, I’ve pushed my publication goal for this one back by a month or so and will see if that helps.

  11. I have run into a particular big issue on, well, writing twitter and my brief attempt at freelance editing. A lot of would-be writers act as if there are no rules to good writing. That the only thing you need to do is follow your heart, really, and your greatest challenge as a writer is sitting down and writing. A lot don’t think this way, but enough do.

    The writer who drove me out of freelance editing, for instance, responded to “er, what person are you using here?” with a long ode to the freedom to do whatever one wanted as an artist and how maybe I could help him decide or maybe he didn’t need to decide. He vanished after I gave up and told him there were structural problems so bad my editing was pointless until they were resolved. Problems like almost all dialogue being in monologue form. I tried to be nice but honest, even offered to work with him on fixing the issues. Never answered.

    I’m not a really great writer, but I know that there are basic rules and structures that work better than others. Or none. Following your heart is not enough. My closet door is covered in sticky notes of things I need to add or fix, and that’s just what I see.

    1. and there are those who are abusive. . . there was a guy who showed up on a writers’ site to solicit advice — announcing he was tough and could take it — and then abusing all who gave it. Later he joined an online writers’ group and lasted two submissions before the moderator threw him out and didn’t even send him all the crits for his second. And he came back and bragged he had sold his book to PublishAmerica — and much mirth and celebration was had.

      1. Yikes! I wonder if it’s just the writing version of the guy who plays acoustic guitar badly because he is an artist and every critic just doesn’t get his genius.

        I have yet to join a writing group of any kind because I wonder if anyone will give me useful criticism- or can take it. I suspect a lot of writing groups are support groups for people with a shared hobby.

        1. That’s what concerns me. I have a friend (poetry) who suggested her writer’s group. I’m not sure about this; I could use another eye on my work, but I’m not sure how helpful the process of using amateurs for that look-see would be.

          1. I do martial arts and what I want is the writing equivalent of a sparring partner. Someone you trust who’s going to push you in ways that you can learn from and vice versa.

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